I’ve read a couple of books about North Korea recently, neither of which were much fun. The first was Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. This was interesting partially for the “arm’s length” approach that Demick had to take – the only North Koreans she could find to talk to were escapees from the Kim regime living in the US or South Korea. Despite those limitations, Demick does a good job (as far as I can tell) of portraying the day-to-day challenges of life in North Korea. The most striking thing? The pettiness of the regime: the megalomania and the monuments to Kim père et fils is one thing, but the Songbun system of what sociologists call “ascribed status” is almost biblical in its horror. So your grandfather found himself on the wrong side of the border at the end of the Korean War? Tough luck, sister, you’re on the Dear Leader’s shit list. Three generations dumped into the “hostile class”. Fuck yeah. I’d be hostile too. No opportunities for employment, constant suspicion from the authorities and the stooges they recruit from the population (who can blame anyone for what they do in that sort of environment? any one of us would probably end up being a stooge too if we could – choice is a luxury in North Korea), and the constant fear of incarceration for one misspoken word. And all the while, the Kims live in luxury and mismanage the country into famine and destitution. Demick’s description of the kochebi, “wandering swallows”, homeless orphans whose parents had died in the famine of the 1990s, is depressing as hell.
The second book was Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. I read it after Demick’s book, and it’s of an entirely different order. The unwieldy title aside, it is just harrowing. There are prison camps in North Korea called “Total Control Zones”. Thousands of people are born there, live there, die there, the children of the supposedly most recalcitrant of the “hostile class”. Shin In Geun is the only person known to have escaped from one of these camps. He saw his mother and brother executed, and was forced to be complicit in their condemnation. He never knew any kind of love or solidarity, was told again and again that he was the lowest of the low. He saw a little girl in his school beaten to death by the “teacher” for nothing, nothng at all. The guards in the camp abused the inmates with impunity. He was told nothing of the outside world. There was no possibility of redemption or escape from the system of oppression into which he was born.
And yet he escaped. One of probably thousands who’ve tried. Well, he escaped physically. Made his way through North Korea to the Chinese border, then to South Korea, and then the US. But escaped from the sick system that shaped his childhood? It doesn’t sound so much like it. Although the South Korean government does a lot to try to integrate refugees from the North, many have mental health problems or just find it difficult to fit into a society that isn’t based on oppression, hatred and suspicion. Shin is one of those. I can’t even begin to imagine the psychological journey he’s already had to make to get from where he started to where he is today.
I guess the central message I drew from these two books is that the North Korean regime is simply evil. The Kims and their entourage do live in luxury. Their subjects (what other word would you use?) live in poverty, fear and isolation from the rest of the world.
I have another book in the same vein to read now, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves And Why It Matters by B. R. Myers. I’m expecting this one to be just as much fun as the other two.